Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Shenmue Review

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The life simulator genre is quite popular in Japan, but it seems that every time it makes its way to America or Europe, the titles are mostly seen with contempt.  A handful of games have transcended the trip from the East to the West, but these titles have appeared more recently save for the one standout: Shenmue.  Originally planned as an AM2 title for the Saturn led by Yu Suzuki, Shenmue ended up being a near-launch Dreamcast game that was seen as an influential powerhouse for gamers of the time.  It now sits as one of those games that is only appreciated by the smaller avid fan community, but looking back at reviews almost every outlet that existed in 2000 loved it.  Although it has now been 15 years since its release – and despite the fact that until recently I had never played it – Shenmue‘s draw, attributes, and puzzling attraction are just as present now as they were the day it released.

Ryo Hazuki starts off by having a very bad day.  His father, Iwao Suzuki, and a relatively unknown Chinese man, Lan Di, are battling each other in the family dojo and just as Ryo arrives his father is killed.  Ryo now lives with surviving family member Ine Hayata, his aunt, and Fukuhara Masayuki (Fuku-san), a live-in student as he sets out to get revenge against Lan Di.  Throughout the game Ryo will interact with many people in the surrounding town, including friend and love interest Nozomi, and train for the day he finally meets his new found nemesis.


I can’t begin to pay enough praise for how amazing this game looks, especially if you are fortunate enough to have a VGA box.  Graphically the game looks great even today, with a high polygon count for characters, interaction with almost everything in the environment, and the option to switch from third person view to first person view at will.  Couple that with the fact that there are tons of NPCs walking around, living their lives, as well as animals, vehicles, and yes, fully functioning arcades and other shops that bring the world to life.  Shenmue is, as many have put it, a living breathing world that comes to life from the moment you start it.  While the interactions may sometime be brief or the flavor text of a location is nothing more than a name, everything has been accounted for and can be interacted with.  Compare that to the blocky, mitten-hands of most other games in the year 2000 on the Playstation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64 and you can see why the memory of such amazing graphics can reverberate with any gamer who experienced it back then.  Great 3D polygonal visuals often came at a steep price, the game’s performance (frame rate), which surprisingly Shenmue does not suffer from.  If you play it on an actual Dreamcast, the game runs smooth as silk with relatively quick load times from start to finish.  I don’t want to lay it on too thick, but it’s one of a few rock solid demonstrations that the Dreamcast was a console that was beyond the generation of consoles it ushered out.


These fantastic visuals assist in creating the world, but there are plenty of little noticeable touches that bring Shemue to life even more.  The entire game keeps track of date and time, including day/night cycles and weather effects (you can even unlock true weather from the exact dates of the game upon your first completion), not mention schedules.  You cannot simply walk into the arcade whenever you want, it has to be open.  You cannot roam around on the streets all night without consequence, your aunt Ine-san will scold and even punish you if you do.  When someone tells you to meet them at a specific time, you have to remember to get there at that time.  Let’s also not forget about work, which once you get a job in the game, will take up a large portion of your day-to-day life, much like a real job does.  When Ryo gets into a fight – this accounts for a small portion of the game but probably the most action as well – he has to react quickly and against foes who can put up a decent fight if you aren’t careful.  In order to get better at fighting, Ryo must train both in the dojo and nightly in his room, which will prove essential to the trials near the end of the game.  All of this is standard for contemporary titles, not even limited to open-world games, but back in the year 2000 it was Shenmue that helped establish all of these conventions.  Even the quick-time event (QTE), for better or for worse, looks to have been introduced in this title, albeit in a rudimentary form.  Clearly Shenmue assisted in the foundation that is responsible for how modern interactive titles function, and it should be appreciated for that, if nothing else.


At this point I have raised Shenmue up to a pretty high point, but before you run out and spend a decent amount of money thanks to the inflation that Shenmue 3‘s development has caused, you need to remember that this game is a life sim title.  That means that what you will be doing most of the time will be at best furthering a story through random interactions and cutscenes and at worse roaming around killing time until the end of the day or your next scheduled event.  Granted, with a live arcade that includes classics like Space Harrier and Hang-On, not to mention darts, a QTE trainer, and a handful of other areas just like it, this can be amusing.  Still, with time being so valued today and the landscape of games being so vast, you may find yourself visiting the toy figure vending machine for the hundredth time within the first ten hours of the game and wonder what the point of it all is.  This goes double for the back half of the game, which is deceptively found on the third and final disc, when you get a job and have to work a minimum of five days moving boxes from warehouse to warehouse.  I’ve heard plenty of feedback that played this part of the game up, but it turns out that all my hope and waiting for a more action intense part of the game gave way to probably my least favorite aspect of Shenmue.  I’ve driven a forklift for a warehouse in my life and Shenmue captures the monotony of that job perfectly, aside from the start of the day races, which we sadly never had at my job.  Even the action fights that are sprinkled within the game become intense battles that require you to start them over from the beginning – yes, even the dreaded 70 man battle near the end – are tarnished by the fact that your fights are so few and far between you never quite get good at them unless you’ve played the game multiple times before.


It all wraps up to an experience that looks gorgeous, plays well, comes to life, but doesn’t do much with these great tools.  And that’s the ultimate rub: Shenmue begs you to ask the question as to whether you’d rather live real life or experience a simulation of it.  Again, in the East it appears that there are many avid gamers, especially around the release of Shenmue, that would very much say yes.  Over here in the West, while appreciated, it doesn’t seem to have that draw with the masses.  Personally I play games to enjoy fantastical characters and stories that could never happen in real life, so ultimately Shenmue doesn’t provide what I seek in a game.  That said, I found the charm and minutia of Shenmue, in addition to the slow-paced but enjoyable story, to be enough to see it through to the end.  Once you get to that ending you will without a doubt feel a sense of accomplishment and the feeling that you have just completed a chapter of a legendary tale, but I can’t quite tell if that was because Shenmue is all that epic or because I was finally done with all the random tasks it wanted me to perform.  So yes, the stories are true, Shenmue is absolutely a game that every “core gamer” should experience once but ultimately it will be to see what we were capable of in the year 2000 rather than something that’s all that new or exciting.  Shemue may enchant you, but you may find over the course of the game’s 20-30 hour campaign (yes, it can vary that much) that you start to lose focus and drive to see it through to the end.

Final Score: 3 out of 5  (review policy and scoring)

Want more information on the game’s release, value, or box art?  Check out our profile page.  Also you can watch Fred’s entire playthrough on our Let’s Play playlist here.

Written by Fred Rojas

August 3, 2015 at 11:00 am

Posted in Dreamcast, Reviews

Tagged with , , ,

7 Responses

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  1. Really enjoyed your play through Fred. Shenmue is one of my all time favourite games but I think that’s a fair review. Going by your reactions on twitch, I think you’d actually enjoy Shenmue 2 more than the first one.


    August 3, 2015 at 8:38 pm

    • Thanks, I had to make my review more evergreen than my personal taste, but I did enjoy Shenmue, flaws and all. I will be playing the sequel in the same format this winter!

      Fred Rojas

      August 3, 2015 at 8:41 pm

  2. Great, you’ll notice a huge difference in terms of scale and pacing. Shenmue seems tiny when compared to the sequel and thanks to the kickstarter you’ll not have to email Sega demanding a sequel when you get to the ending lol.


    August 4, 2015 at 3:36 am

  3. Cannot say I understand your score. After praising the game, only giving it a 3/5? It’s like “10/10 it’s okay”.

    Anyways, I first heard of Shenmue’s existence from Twin Perfect’s videos.


    August 9, 2015 at 2:48 am

    • It’s a technical showpiece but the game lacks a lot of compelling things to do. Game reviews to me are like hybrid tech and content reviews. Shenmue is strong in tech, weak in content. While I enjoyed it, it’s not for everyone. Either way, the game balances in the middle, to me, these days.

      Fred Rojas

      August 9, 2015 at 9:11 am

  4. You should really try shenmue 2 and then reflect on shenmue 1. the pacing of the game will become so clear.


    June 12, 2017 at 4:09 pm

    • I intend to do just that, although probably not until the fall or winter. Rest assured, I will come back and compare the two.

      Fred Rojas

      June 16, 2017 at 9:09 am

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